In order to understand the insanity of high-stakes testing today, you have to go back more than a century and look at three different developments during that time: the rapid demographic changes in our country, the changing job market demands, and the way our society viewed the power of science and the value of human beings. In this post, I draw on other education scholars in order to lay out a very brief explanation for how these seemingly unconnected occurrences have left their impact on our current schooling institution.

To begin, you have to go back to the industrial revolution. There are three major demographic changes that occurred after the Civil War:

  1. Industrialization (massive manufacturing growth)
  2. Immigration (people from all over the world were coming to the U.S. for work)
  3. Urbanization (immigrants and folks from rural America migrated to the cities for work)

All of these changes meant that people were on the move, cultural clashes were prevalent, and urban areas were becoming more diverse. One way that the politicians, the citizens, and the corporations responded to these changes was through the school policies. The changing American social landscape is described further below.

Industrialization, Immigration, and Urbanization post-Civil War

The United States was changing rapidly in the early 1900’s: it was the height of industrialization and manufacturing. As the demand for labour in the manufacturing facilities increased, larger numbers of people gravitated toward that work, which meant they moved into the cities and across U.S. borders. Immigration and industrialization changed rapidly: in a twenty-seven year period (1890-1917) immigration rates nearly tripled and the U.S. population almost doubled.

  • 1865-1900 = 14 million immigrants came into the U.S.
  • 1900-1910 = 9 million immigrants came into the U.S.
  • 1890-1917: Immigration rates nearly tripled[1] & the U.S. population almost doubled[2]

There can be little doubt that the country’s social landscape was shifting drastically.


The idea of the comprehensive high school was well underway and had already caused massive numbers of students to enter the schools just before the turn of the century.[3] As the nation experienced swells in immigration and intensive urbanization in the early 1900’s, the schools simultaneously experienced yet another enrollment boost. First, thanks to the labour unions and grassroots activists who fought for laws prohibiting child labour, more and more children were finally leaving the factories in order to go to school.[4] Enrollment increases were spurred also by the compulsory schooling and mandatory attendance laws that were in place across the nation by around 1918.[5]

  • Compulsory schooling & mandatory attendance enforced in 1918[6]
  • 1870: less than 7 million students in public school
  • 1898: 15 million students[7] in public school
  • 1910: high schools had moved to the model of 5-6 classes per day, with teachers seeing 150-200 students each day.[8]

These ‘child-centered’ reforms are some examples of the political scramblings that policymakers, corporations, schools, and the citizenry enacted in their efforts to respond to the rapid changes, the demographic shifts in the U.S. population, and their perceived threats that immigrant and/or poor people posed to the dominant culture (i.e., White, Protestant). As Carl Kaestle argues, the implementation of “mass schooling for social stability” and “productive citizenry” has been the elite response to urbanization since at least the early 1800’s. The U.S. actually first borrowed this idea from England – the imperial and capitalistic power of the day. The fears of the dominant population in the U.S. were inextricably tied to racist and classist assumptions about immigrant and urban populations. Fears about “crime and disruption”, moral degradation, and the “volatile urban poor” have historically fueled school reform efforts by the elite: “The more anxious they became about the security of the world, the more they favored mass education.”[9] In other words, reform efforts (of both the past and present) that rest on notions of ‘social stability’ merely mask the cultural politics that undergird them.

The Human Assembly Linefactory_model_of_schooling_-_Google_Search

It was in the midst of all of this rapid cultural, demographic, and industrial change that some curriculum specialists sought to make our schools function more like an assembly line. This is extremely important to understanding our schools today, especially since so many of us are concerned with the inhumanity in our schools. Think about the rigid functioning of the school, the way that kids just get pushed along from one thing to the next, and the way children are being forced to learn faster and cram more and more into their heads. In order to understand where these practices come from, it is important to understand what was happening in industry a century ago.

Social Efficiency and Scientific Management

Increases in immigration and urbanization, and the desire to quell elite fears by controlling the rapidly growing school population fueled the drive toward social efficiency in the early 1900’s. Social efficiency is the belief that a system – like a school or business, for instance – should be run like a well-oiled, heavily controlled, efficient machine. It is from this belief that we see the creation of things like ‘best practices’ and the notion that there is only ‘one answer’ or ‘one best way’ to teach and learn.

Scholars credit John Franklin Bobbitt and the work of Frederick Winslow Taylor in the creation of what is commonly called the factory model of schooling.[10] Bobbitt was a professor at the University of Chicago who merged and then spread his ideas about curriculum and the corporate-style, centralized management of schools.[11] He drew his inspiration from Frederick Taylor, a man known as the “so-called father of scientific management.” Taylor was transfixed on “order and regulation” and driven by the aim to increase “production at lower costs.” By studying the quickest labourers on the assembly line, Taylor was able to hone a management style that realized total efficiency through the precise physiological management of human movement.[12] Taylor believed that the scientific management of human beings would create a scenario wherein “the first class man, then could be used as a standard” toward which all other workers could be pushed.[13] (This video will give you a pretty good idea of Taylor’s work).

Bobbitt’s business logic and Taylor’s mechanized human management model signified a major philosophical shift in U.S. schools. That is, reformers and policymakers came to view schools as ‘factories,’ teachers as the ‘labourers,’ and students as the ‘raw materials’ that become the ‘products’ that get dispersed and traded on the future labour ‘market.’ It is important to note that Bobbitt strived for efficiency (not quality) in educating the growing, diverse student population in the U.S.: “In Bobbitt’s model, the objectives for students are based on their predicted future social and economic lives ‘according to their social and vocational destiny…’” This destiny, according to Bobbitt, would be determined by how well students met certain objectives, and those objectives would be “measured through the establishment of standards.” This required administrators to collect data and create “the best methods for teachers to get students to meet the standards.” Bobbitt’s condescension and sexism is revealed in his belief that teachers should be removed from the curricular process because he thought, “The burden of finding the best methods is too large and too complicated to be laid on the shoulders of the teacher…” He concluded that the teacher should only be responsible for “[producing] the product” (not citizens or human beings even) and that tests would be the way to determine the ‘good’ students and teachers from the ‘bad.’[14] Most importantly, though, when the root of Taylor’s logic is merged with Bobbitt’s, there can be little surprise that the white Protestant male would serve as the “first class man” against whom the schooling standard would be set.



Prosthetic aids of people who were killed in concentration camps

The reformers’ concerns over immigration, urbanization, and social efficiency in schooling cannot be separated from the historical realities of the eugenics movement. Eugenicists of the twentieth century believed that knowledge and science should be directed toward creating better human beings. They aimed “to encourage people of good health to reproduce together to create good births… and to end certain diseases and disabilities by discouraging or preventing others from reproducing…”[15] This belief system rests upon the notion that particular human beings are more valuable, more desirable, and ‘better’ than others, which also means that particular human beings are not. Eugenics resulted in some of the most horrific manifestations. The worst, of course, was the annihilation of the Jews by during the holocaust, where the Nazis justified murderous acts through their desire to build a superior race. What many people do not know is that eugenicist beliefs abounded in the U.S. as well with the prolific diagnosing, institutionalization, and forced medical sterilization of people who were believed to be ‘unfit’ because of physical or mental impairments.

Ann Stoler argues that during the early 1900’s, concerns and “notions of ‘degeneracy’” permeated the “metropolitan bourgeois discourse”. At the root of these fears of degeneracy was the belief that “[middle-class] morality, manliness and motherhood” are being “endangered” or contaminated through interactions and reproduction with individuals from differing races, classes, abilities, religions, or nationalities. As Stoler points out, such fears rely on the assumption “that poverty, vagrancy and promiscuity were class-linked biological traits.” In other words, they are not viewed as the side effects of social neglect and terrible policy; they are instead assumed to be genetically inheritable.[16] A strong faith in technology and science bolstered the eugenics movement and provided “a medical and moral basis for anxiety over white prestige which reopened debates over segregated residence and education, new standards of morality, sexual vigilance and the rights of certain Europeans to rule.”[17]

There are clearly many, many problems with eugenicist beliefs. One of the less spoken truths about this movement, however, is that all of this horror was justified through the use of science. That is, science and medicine were used to study and to pathologize human bodies and minds. Scientific research and medicalized procedures were used to place value upon and discard living human beings. And the drive toward social efficiency, the zeal for the scientific management of human beings, and the quest for a superior genetic line culminated in one of the darkest moments in recent history. In the following section, I explain how efficiency, scientific management, and eugenics came together in the form of testing.

I.Q. Testing: Measuring Who’s Valuable

An important characteristic of eugenics and scientific management in the twentieth century was what Stoler calls the “politics of exclusion:” the practice of defining, identifying, and labeling deviance. Notions of deviance centered on “the socially and physically ‘unfit,’ the poor, the indigent, and the insane…”[18] Within this ideological framework, the I.Q. (intelligence quotient) test became the widely accepted way for scientists and school and medical personnel to measure and label human beings.[19] The history begins in schools, but was developed further by the U.S. military.

In 1904, a French psychologist named Alfred Binet devised the I.Q. test in order to determine which low-performing elementary-aged students were ‘mentally disabled.’ Henry Goddard, Lewis Termin, and Robert Yerkes then adopted Binet’s theories for their own purposes in 1917, and Yerkes’ conclusions are most significant. He was the U.S. military colonel who helped develop the I.Q. tests that assessed the intelligence of 1.75 million soldiers during WWI. After extensive testing, Yerkes drew numerous conclusions. First, he concluded that “…the average White adult in the U.S. had an average mental age of 13…” He also concluded that there was a correlation between intelligence, gradations of skin tone, and nationality: “The darker peoples of eastern and southern Europe were less intelligent than their fairer-skinned, western and northern European counterparts…” and “African Americans were the least intelligent of all peoples.”[20] In other words, by persistently administering a test that is inherently experientially biased,[21] Yerkes ‘systematically’ justified the eugenicists’ racist beliefs that the lighter the skin, the higher the I.Q.

By 1926, the College Board had also begun developing a new form of intelligence test that could be used to determine which students were ‘fit’ for college entrance. Carl Brigham, a former colleague of Yerkes who also helped develop the military’s I.Q. test, began developing the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). At the time, he was also an avid eugenicist, and through his work on the SAT, he also concluded “Immigrants were genetically less intelligent than people born in the United States.”[22] Of course, none of his ‘science’ accounted for language bias in the tests. Brigham’s assumptions mimicked Yerkes, and after coming to these conclusions, he also started sounding the alarm of white degeneracy: “because of the shifting immigration patterns of the United States,” he believed “the average I.Q. was falling.”[23]

There can be little doubt that the claims drawn from the developers of the SAT and I.Q. tests are absurd. In fact, it might be of little surprise that many of the men who worked on these test development projects were not only strong proponents of eugenics; some also supported heavy immigration restrictions and the sterilization of individuals based on their I.Q.[24] Testing and the ensuing fears about test scores have been historically wrapped up with fears about immigration and urbanization. The fears about urbanization and immigration, meanwhile, have often been undergirded by a paternalistic fear (i.e. racist, classist, sexist, and ableist fears) of cultural or racial contamination, the inheritability of ‘deviance,’ and the ‘degeneration’ of white middle-class norms. In response to an uncertain and uncontrollable world, a feverish patriarchy latches onto and attempts to control the one thing it thinks it can: women and children. And because of the high concentration of both in the schools, education becomes a primary target for ‘social stability.’

In the latter part of Brigham’s life, he did come to reject his own work and the notion of eugenics. In fact, he even tried to undo the damage that had been done.[25] Sadly, though, the detrimental ideas were already deeply entrenched into the mechanism of the SAT and the testing industry. And as many have argued, test scores have been used countless times over the last hundred years to raise public ‘alarm’ and stoke fears about the ‘intellectual degradation’ of U.S. students.[26] But the unfortunate fact is that fears about degeneracy, eugenicist beliefs about human intelligence, and the persistent faith in scientific management not only worked to reinforce one another; the underlying beliefs and their consequences remain a relatively permanent fixture in the public schools because of the emphasis placed on testing. This has been the case on the domestic front and abroad, particularly with the more recent and increasing implementation of the international assessment, Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).

So if you have been wondering why children of color, English language learners, those with IEPs, and those afflicted by poverty do not do well on standardized tests, this historical perspective should help you see that they were never supposed to do well because the tests were specifically designed to prove that such children are inadequate. The ethical question remains: is this the type of ‘science’ that should be driving our school policies and our children’s school experience?

If you have questions, critiques, or comments to offer about this post, please feel free to email me.

Becky Smith

[1] See p. 12. Carl Kaestle, Testing Policy in the United States: A Historical Perspective. Retrieved from , on October 25, 2014.

[2] See p. 27. Wayne Au, Unequal by Design: High-stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, (New York, 2009).

[3] The student population more than doubled between 1870 and 1898, surging from 7 million to 15 million students. See p. 66. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[4] Ibid. p. 186.

[5] See p. 3. Education Policy Institute, The Landscape of Public Education: A Statistical Portrait through the Years. Retrieved from: , on October 24, 2014.

[6] See pg. 3. Education Policy Institute, The Landscape of Public Education: A Statistical Portrait through the Years. Retrieved from , on October 24, 2014.

[7] See pg. 54. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The one best system: A history of American urban education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[8] See p. 27 in Wayne Au, Unequal by Design: High-stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality, (New York, 2009).

[9] See p. 33-35. Kaestle, C. F. (1983). Pillars of the republic: Common Schools and Society, 1780-1860. New York, NY: Hill & Wang.

[10] See Chapter 4. Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893-1958. New York, NY: Routledge.

[11] See p. 144. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[12] See p. 94. Kliebard, H. M. (2004). The Struggle for the American Curriculum: 1893-1958. New York, NY: Routledge.

[13] Ibid. p. 95.

[14] See p. 22. Au, W. (2009). Unequal by Design: High-stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

[15] See Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2014). Retrieved:

[16] See p. 643. Stoler, A. L. (1989). Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures. American Ethnologist, 16(4), 634‐660.

[17] Ibid. p. 644. Again, as with the construction of history and positivism, this faith in science and technology reinforces the supremacy of the elite.

[18] See p. 645. Stoler, A. L. (1989). Making Empire Respectable: The Politics of Race and Sexual Morality in 20th-Century Colonial Cultures. American Ethnologist, 16(4), 634‐660.

[19] See p. 180. Tyack, D. B. (1974). The One Best System: A History of American Urban Education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[20] See p. 35. Au, W. (2009). Unequal by Design: High-stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis. Winfield, A. G. (2007). Eugenics and Education in America: Institutionalized Racism and the Implications of History, Ideology, and Memory. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

[21] Kenneth Howe says, “Bias is a kind of invalidity that arises relative to groups.” I take the stance that it is impossible to write any test that is not linguistically, dialectically, and experientially biased. I define experiential bias as the proven and consistent inability to account for the complexities of who we are and how we experience this world through the means of testing. See p. 94. Kenneth L. Howe, Understanding Equal Educational Opportunity: Social Justice, Democracy, and Schooling,” (New York, 1997).

[22] See p. 47. Au, W. (2009). Unequal by Design: High-stakes Testing and the Standardization of Inequality. New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor & Francis.

[23] See p. 24. Kaestle, C. F. Testing Policy in the United States: A Historical Perspective. Retrieved from , on October 25, 2014.

[24] Ibid. p. 10.

[25] Ibid. p. 24.

[26] David C. Berliner & Bruce J. Biddle, The Manufactured Crisis: Myths, Fraud, and the Attack on America’s Public Schools (White Plains, 1997); Deron Boyles, American Education and Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School (New York, 2000); Ira Shor, Culture Wars: School and Society in the Conservative Restoration (Chicago, 1992); Peter Sacks, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America’s Testing Culture and What We Can do to Change It (Cambridge, 1999).